Presence as an essential qualification

Recently, I have been working with a non-profit organization and encouraging them to diversify their board representation. This isn’t the first time I have had these conversations with different non-profit boards. Nearly every time that I broach the subject, I get pushback and claims of tokenism. 

 Basically, the argument goes something like this “Shouldn’t we bring on the most qualified candidate regardless of identity?” It’s a fair question, but it misses the value of presence. 

 A few years ago I was on a board of directors for a national disability non-profit. The organization was changing how they branded their materials and even crafted their materials consistent with a more forward-minded approach to disability language and self-determination. Most of the board was inline with this new approach, but a few holdouts remained. During one contentious meeting, one member railed against the changes, arguing that the changes were wasted on our target demographic (adults with disabilities). He went on to speak of “minds of a kindergartner” and “they wouldn’t notice anyway” if the changes were incorporated.

After he spoke his mind, the meeting resumed, and he just sat and pouted. After the meeting a couple handpicked board members met with the disgruntled board member and gently persuaded him to resign. He did, thankfully. 

His resignation isn’t the point. The point is that if we had, at the time, a member of the board who identified as an individual with intellectual disabilities, I am confident that the entire conversation would have been different. Sure, the board member would still have held to his beliefs, and would probably end up resigning. Yet, the presence of a different perspective can act as a restraint on the vitriol and paternalism that are often associated with homogenous groupings. 

 I am not saying that a diverse presence is all an individual brings. However, what I am saying is that when we focus on our own definition of “most qualified” we will tend to not only recreate itself, but actually move further (left or right) than any position originally held by any single member originally. Economist Carl Sunstein rights about this (check it out HERE). Having an individual that offers a contrast to the prevailing majority through either their perspective or presence is important. In fact, when I reframe the qualification question and include this concept of diversity of perspective and presence, the answer to “who is the most qualified.” 

 Again, as you might be building your board, do not mistake this for an argument of diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, it should be a factor in your board composition. If your board is homogenous, are you clearly articulating the needs and values of all your constituents? How can I add to the board while making sure diversity of perspective and presence are part of my qualification discussion? The temptation is to devolve into tokenism or the “Rooney Rule” where diverse applicants or potential members are explored but only half-heartedly with no real desire to grow the organization or to avoid the deliberation failures that Sunstein discusses. Having served on multiple boards, some diverse and others not so much, I know the value that representation brings. 

 Recently an entire school board in the Bay Area (Oakley) resigned after their rage session about parents went on full display thanks to Zoom recordings. The conversation would have been completely different if the parents were part of the conversation (they were but not the way the board imagined). A healthy board serves its constituency best when the constituency is represented. In other words, a foster care charity that has no current or former foster youth or foster parents on the board (you know who you are) is not going to adequately address the needs of the constituency regardless of other arbitrary qualifications. 

Again, a non-profit or similar ministry that serves individuals with disabilities, but fails to represent those individuals on the board beyond a single demographic is not fully serving their constituency. Proper representation does not necessarily prevent paternalism or degradation, unfortunately. However, it is less likely when the board is more heterogeneous. 

 How do I do this? First, update your board member qualifications to include presence and perspective and desire qualifications. Second, when replacing board members seek outside input in board development. It is all too easy to replace yourself with someone who looks like you, but this again leads to homogeneity and self-replication. Third, even when you reach out to diversify the board there can be a tendency to silence dissenting members or atypical members. In order to account for this, the chairperson should instill practices that are easy, low risk, opportunities for non-threatening dissent. Beyond that there might be benefit to bringing an outside analyst/consultant (shameless plug) to engage the full board in some guided self-reflection. 

Ultimately, the goal is to better serve and/or minister to those we claim to serve alongside. Just my 2 cents.